One year into the Taliban’s second rule


It has been one year since the Taliban took over in Afghanistan in August 2021. Following the announcement of the final withdrawal of international forces, the Taliban’s fast expanse from the provinces to the capital took everyone by surprise. Images of Kabul airport, portraying the chaos that followed their rapid offensive left the world in shock. Twelve months after the traumatic events, the situation on the ground has further deteriorated as a huge part of the population lives in poverty and the de-facto government is not capable of dealing with a humanitarian catastrophe.

Teaser Image Caption
The situation in Afghanistan has further deteriorated.

A dossier of opinions on widespread poverty, abysmal human rights records and shrinking space for women under the new de facto Taliban government.

While the international community is busy evaluating past mistakes of its engagement in Afghanistan, it continues to be unable to find a position in dealing with the country’s present de facto regime. Since the beginning of the international intervention in 2001, human rights and especially the situation of women have been the core of measuring the success of an international democracy and state building project. Afghan civil society organisations, mostly headed by former diaspora, institutionalised themselves around those internationally recognised norms and values, following the flow of international funding schemes. Various processes of transition, transformation, and peace building were designed and implemented mainly involving a well-educated, urban section of the Afghan population. Local community voices, traditionally existing structures and their interests were included mostly as a quota to legitimise national and international level decision-making processes.

At present, while international evacuation efforts of “former local personnel” re-establish a community of “Afghans in exile” all over the world, it is again a small group of civil society actors that are picking up on what remains in Afghanistan. Yet again they find themselves juggling with multiple, local ground realities, often starkly opposing international demands. And, with a local context heavily dependent on international funding for every day survival, and an international community searching for justifications of its past efforts, there is the danger of yet another Afghanistan project evolving that misses out to find an inclusive strategy that realistically addresses the present situation.

The Taliban as a transnational group have historically evolved as complex and fragmented with little transparency about how hierarchies and responsibilities are distributed. This is also true for the current de facto government set up in Afghanistan. Overall, the re-installment of an Islamic Emirate as a political system for Afghanistan was announced. And, while preserving some institutions and ministries of the former Islamic Republic such as the National Environment Protection Agency (NEPA), they have dismissed others such as the Independent Human Rights Commission or the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, the latter being replaced by the infamous Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. At the same time, the civil society organisations, think tanks and individual actors that had worked on human rights related issues have left the country. This means there are no mechanisms left that monitor the human rights situation in Afghanistan.

While over the last 12 months no country has diplomatically recognised the de facto authorities in Kabul, the Taliban seem to solidify their political power, which gives them the confidence to act against their initial promises to guarantee a certain degree of civil mobility and participation. The immediate decision of the international community to exclude Afghanistan from the global banking system and the freezing of its foreign assets as a sanction measure towards the Taliban, mostly hits the local population. Prior to the takeover, 75 per cent of public spending in Afghanistan was dependent on foreign funds that have been suspended since a year now.

This dependence on foreign aid and the need for humanitarian assistance in the country was perceived by the international community as a political leverage over the Taliban. International recognition and funding was made conditional to holding up civil freedoms. However, this leverage does not seem to affect the Taliban who still proceed to implement Sharia law. According to the latest UN human rights report on Afghanistan, the access of the population to fundamental freedoms cannot be guaranteed any more. Likewise, basic needs such as access to food or healthcare cannot be fulfilled. According to the ADB, around 50 per cent of the population of the country lives below the poverty line.

To stop Afghanistan sliding further into an abyss of a mixture of this current crisis of ownership and authority over decision making, mixed with impacts of natural calamities and climate change, it is time for the international community to move towards approaches that are more inclusive. Such approaches need to include those actors that have been working in Afghanistan, the various and often conflicting opinions of the new community of Afghans in exile, the existing Afghan diaspora, and those international and national organisations and individual actors that have a longstanding experience in working with local realities and with Afghan communities. Instead of initiating exclusive, closed-door processes with vague outcomes, an open dialogue needs to be initiated that is able to address the ground realities and helps to define strategies that address the Taliban and their political system. Given its role in the past, the German government is in a vital position to initiate such an open inclusive dialogue.

This dossier of opinions is composed of statements of people (and experts ggf.) with different backgrounds. Some of our interviewees are still living in Afghanistan whereas others live in different parts of the world. They represent a composition of researchers, media and former as well as present Afghan civil society actors. Some of them requested to remain unnamed.

We have divided the following chapters into different sections reflecting their experiences on the day of the takeover, the evacuations and the role of the Afghan diaspora and of living with and under the new regime. And finally our interviewees expressed critically their expectations towards the de facto authorities and the role of the international community.

The statements included in this dossier represent individual and personal views of the contributors. They are intended to show the diversity of opinions and they do not necessarily reflect the views of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung.

Memories of a fateful day

“When my mother confirmed the rumours that Kabul had collapsed, I was devastated[1]

All contributors to this dossier of statements through their individual lenses still carry the shock of the sudden capture of Kabul. They share a feeling of agony and disbelief while recounting their stories. “It felt like Kabul was not breathing for a week and everyone was in trauma”, says one of our interviewees.

After hearing about the capture of Kabul, one of our former colleagues at hbs tried to return home immediately out of fear and uncertainty about what would happen next:

“[…] when I was in the office, our security group reported that Mohammad Ashraf Ghani ordered the surrender of all security forces to the Taliban in Kabul. All my colleagues were so scared and worried and tried to leave the office. I was on the way for five hours due to heavy traffic jam.”[2]

All of our interviewees reported that in the immediate hours after it was known to all that former president Ashraf Ghani had fled the country and that the Taliban were entering into Kabul, everything in the city went into a limbo and nobody could anticipate what would happen next. People having worked for international organisations were insecure and mostly hiding because of the Taliban’s resentment against the perceived collaboration with foreign invaders.

I felt more insecure from my relatives and neighbours because some were also members of the Taliban group. For this, we stayed in my auntie’s house until leaving Afghanistan.”[3]Especially women that had worked for the government or international organisations were scared about their lives: I had to change my location thrice and I was wearing a burqa so that nobody could recognise me. We went to the airport four times until we managed to enter the airport. We left my father behind which was a very hard decision as he is a survivor of stroke and half of his body is paralysed”[4].

It was only on 17 August 2021 that the Taliban announced a general amnesty for all former Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) and government officials. Even though later on, they did not really abide by it.

With the takeover it was the fear of retribution that shook the people and the certitude that life would change and established democratic values and a modern urban life in cities like Kabul would be over.

The rapid regime change also shook people from the international community that had been working in and with Afghanistan over many years:

“I have been a teacher and lecturer for media, freedom of press and civil society in Afghanistan pre-2021. So, my concern was with my long-time aides in Afghanistan and their families, especially when we all witnessed the chaos ruling at Kabul airport. I heard firing in the background near the airport as I was speaking with my Afghan colleagues over the phone to look for a way to evacuate their families. For some of the families, it turned out to work, for others not. Safe communication kept all of us online 24/7 for days and weeks.”[5]

Supporting so many known Afghan colleagues on their way to the airport or accompanying their dangerous journey to one of the land borders was a tough undertaking often accompanied by a feeling of helplessness.

A researcher and longstanding expert on Afghanistan only got to know about the events on 16 August, 2021 as she is living in Australia. She described several feelings that shook her that day, among them anger, denial, but the most prevalent was the feeling of grief: grief for peace. She tells us that she had been “[…] deeply mourning the deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan for some time now.”[6]

Living under and with the new regime

“Now, we are trying to adapt to the situation, but it is very difficult and painful to see your country taking steps behind while others are going ahead.[7]

When we asked about how the life of the people has changed since last August, especially women reported that they have been facing major restrictions, which are dramatically affecting their rights to participation, employment and their movement in the public space:

“It has changed a lot in every aspect such as dress code and restrictions on movement without chaperones (Mahram),”[8] a female colleague working in a local NGO says about her life.

A lot of women have lost their jobs after the takeover and have not returned to work ever since: “Girls' schools were closed, and my mother and sister, teaching high school girls, stayed home.”[9]

Not going to work also means the lack of financial resources for families. “Life isn't the same for Afghans now; families face severe financial problems, and the poverty rate is increasing. Women are affected the most; schools for girls above grade 6 are closed, and they still can't work in governmental offices.”[10]

It was never easy as a woman to live independently in Afghanistan, but the current regime does not give any space to women and is eradicating them from public life.

Living and working as a strong and independent woman in Afghanistan was not easy. It required a lot of patience, stamina and resilience. I experienced a lot of barriers and challenges especially after resigning from my position and discontinuing my collaboration with Ghani’s Administration. I still lived and worked in Afghanistan and never thought of leaving my country.”[11]

That is why some of those women who had been working with international organisations, media or the former government did not see any other option but leaving.

“Real political and legal rights for women are not in sight as long as the new de facto power holders deny their right to take part in political activities, work in administration, media and public affairs”.[12]

Another realm that has been curtailed by the de facto authorities is the freedom of expression and speech. Independent media has become quiet.

“Media sees a lot of self-censorship. But a number of persons are engaging newly in media (or what is left of it). We hear for example that number of previously leading media are now registered in Western countries and are hiring new staff in Afghanistan. A new kind of citizen journalism is under way, some of them claim, which uses social media platforms to circumvent existing bans. Support for free Afghan media in exile makes sense, though its results are difficult to monitor under current conditions, like in many areas.”[13]

While looking at the situation from outside Afghanistan, one of our international interviewees is anticipating a repetition of what has already happened during the last 20 years: Another closed and selected circle of people consisting of mainly a few international (non-Afghan) experts will be consulted by relevant decision makers on strategies towards the Taliban behind closed doors, patronising the Afghan people.

“And given that these experts did not see the change coming, how can they still speak with confidence? I find it scary how some experts don’t seem to have an ethical compass that makes them more cautious in what they advise, or with what certainty and authority they speak about a country that is not their own, where they don’t have to live with the consequences, and where they get information second-hand.”[14]

All interviewed internationals were unanimous in saying that the international community must not continue these past mistakes, but consult local experts and representatives of civil society and try to engage with local power holders to a certain degree in order to start a process of reconciliation in the country.

“We need to deal with the new de facto power holders, and with clear principles on our side. But most of all, our responsibility goes to the 33 million or so of Afghans still living in their homeland, with the aim of avoiding another humanitarian, educational and economical catastrophe. Pragmatism including reliable Afghan networks on the ground is needed, otherwise the Afghan people will lose the rest of their hopes in the outside world.”[15]

Evacuation and Afghan diaspora

The apocalyptic pictures of the situation at the Kabul airport are still present in our memories and have deeply affected all of us. Those who were closely involved in the traumatising events, trying to get our colleagues and former employees on so-called evacuation lists, trying to find a way out for them, hoping for them to make it alive to the airport, are still struggling in processing the events.

Being asked to make lists is very difficult when it is hard to judge the risk from afar – and when we perhaps as international community would have to admit that some people were evacuated that were not directly at risk – and that some really at risk people (who lacked the contacts to the international community, or never had worked for an international aid contractors) could not access the evacuation […].”[16]

Having been at one end of a communication channel far away from the dramatic events, not being able to do anything, was also hard to live with “[…] and that is something we should also reflect on – could this not have happened differently – and what will this do to the refugee regime.”[17]

At the same time, quite a number of Afghans have already been evacuated. They had to leave some of their loved ones behind and also have lost their home trying to settle in a new place.

“This is the second time that I leave my country. I can feel very well that I am exhausted and still traumatised, but I have to work even harder than before to continue supporting women in Afghanistan, to advocate to international community for their constructive engagement with Afghanistan, to build alliances with Afghanistan women leaders living in exile, to be part of a political solution for my country and also start a new life in a new country.”[18]

Afghans in exile have to watch their country drowning in a humanitarian catastrophe that comprises poverty, famine and natural calamities without access to funds while there is no capable government that could deal with these disasters and protect their population.

Afghans in exile will also play a certain role in the future developments of their country according to our interviewees.

Afghanistan diaspora has the knowledge, skills and expertise for not only development but also implementation of a roadmap to a JUST Afghanistan as long as they put aside all their political and ethnic interests and focus on Afghanistan to become the country of all regardless of gender, ethnicity and religious class.”[19]

But at the same time, some of our interviewees also point out the ambivalent role of the Afghan diaspora: The Afghans in exile continue to influence decisions of the international community and sometimes also pursue conflicting interests with those on the ground. They should acknowledge their limitations as they are not in the country any longer, take a step back and use their influence to reconcile ethnic hatred.

Learning from past mistakes

Most of the recommendations given by our international experts towards the international community revolve around not repeating past mistakes and assisting Afghanistan beyond humanitarian help. The international community should enter into a process of critical self-reflectivity together with Afghans to understand and acknowledge their mistakes of the last 20 years. One of our interviewees further states that it is better to support civil society organisations in the country instead of concentrating the whole support for Afghanistan around humanitarian assistance. Local organisations try to involve the Taliban as well in order to achieve change that is legitimated by the local power holders instead of being imposed from abroad or being perceived as imposed from abroad.

The primary focus is on humanitarian support only – because we don’t want to benefit the Taliban – when in reality they will benefit anyhow. So I feel we are somewhat delusional; we are not learning from history (our engagement with the first Emirate)...   I get it, humanitarian assistance is important – but have we learned nothing – and what about civil society actors that might still want to (and are) engaging the Taliban for change (long-term yes, but engaging they are).  Why are we not willing to support this? Why throw money at humanitarian support only, blow up the UN and deny Afghans that want to have agency and are demonstrating agency, why are we not supporting them. Not to say there is no support, but the sudden shift is surprising – the belief the UN and humanitarian support will not benefit the Taliban is for me a form of wishful thinking that I thought we should know better by now.“[20]

Trying to learn from past lessons furthermore means to consider the experiences of experts that have worked under several regimes in Afghanistan and take into account the literature and research about the last Emirate, which is still accessible[21].

Expectations from the de facto authorities

All of our interviewees agreed that the Taliban are a reality and the de facto power holders in Afghanistan. If there will be any support for the Afghan people, there needs to be some sort of engagement with them. At the same time, the de facto authorities cannot deny that today’s Afghanistan will be different than during their last rule.

The expectations from Afghans in the country are mainly focused on the prevention of a humanitarian catastrophe.

I expect the de facto authorities to show flexibility towards the people of Afghanistan and the internal community. We suffered a lot from war, and now it's time to think about rebuilding the country and taking practical steps toward it. Education is essential for a developed and modern society, and I expect the de facto authorities to understand this and take immediate action towards opening schools for girls and work to decrease the unemployment rate in the country.”[22]

Mostly they are claiming their basic fundamental rights from them: “I wish for an inclusive government and prosperous Afghanistan where the rights of women and all groups are respected.”[23]

One of our international experts recommends to the Taliban to “[…] understand the country and society you inherited and that you can’t go back to rule how you did in the 1990s/ early 2000s. Adapt to the new context and the fact that two-thirds of the population is under the age of 25, the average age is 17 – that is a huge responsibility – one that is up to you.”[24]

According to her, this entails to continue the education for all, including women as they are really needed as well to run the state and to engage with modern and traditional civil society to hold a dialogue about the future of Afghanistan.They should be available for compromises, i.e. to open up their approaches one step at a time to engage with civil society or human rights. Only when all actors on the ground are involved can a durable peace be initiated and all sides of the conflict be reconciled.

The conducted interviews have shown that there is a lot of ambivalence and complexity as different actors on several levels are involved in Afghanistan. The international community, Afghans in exile, but also the Taliban have a lot to acknowledge if they want a reconciled and prosperous Afghanistan. First and foremost, our interviewees suggest the need of the hour for all actors to take a step back, also from their own interests and involve Afghan people in the country in an inclusive process of reconciliation and peace. Refrain from old approaches that have obviously failed, but look at what is demanded locally. Do not hold your discussions in ivory towers only involving white experts and selected Afghan elites that do not represent their people.

And let us not forget that Afghans – be it in exile or still in the country – above all have lost their homes and the prospect of a better future after almost 40 years of war.


[1] Interview with NN (identity not disclosed), 10 August 2022

[2] Interview with Hasib Homan, 9 August 2022

[3] Hasib Homan, ibd

[4] Interview with Nargis Nehan, 11 August 2022

[5] Interview with MG (identity not disclosed), 9 August 2022

[6] Interview with Susanne Schmeidl, 11 August 2022

[7] Interview with SS (identity not disclosed), 10 August 2022

[8] Interview with HA(identity not disclosed), 10 August 2022

[9] Interview with SS (identity not disclosed), 10 August 2022

[10] Interview with SS (identity not disclosed), 10 August 2022

[11] Interview with Nargis Nehan, 11 August 2022

[12] Interview with MG (identity not disclosed), 9 August 2022

[13] Interview with MG (identity not disclosed), 9 August 2022

[14] Interview with Susanne Schmeidl, 11 August 2022

[15] Interview with MG (identity not disclosed), 9 August 2022

[16] Interview with Susanne Schmeidl, 11 August 2022

[17] Interview with Susanne Schmeidl, 11 August 2022

[18] Interview with Nargis Nehan, 11 August 2022

[19] Interview with Nargis Nehan, 11 August 2022

[20] Interview with Susanne Schmeidl, 11 August 2022

[21] Interview with Susanne Schmeidl, 11 August 2022

[22] Interview with SS (identity not disclosed), 10 August 2022

[23] Interview with HA (identity not disclosed), 10 August 2022

[24] Interview with Susanne Schmeidl, 11 August 2022